November 25, 2014

It’s a strange thought, but the solution to your business’s innovation problem may be walking around in the head of someone who applies theatrical makeup for a living.

Or plays robot soccer. Or installs heavy machinery in mines. Or does something else that’s apparently unrelated to the problem you’ve been struggling with.

Over the course of years of studying innovation, we’ve found that there’s great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level. Such as makeup and surgical infections, surprisingly. Or inventory management and robot games. Or malls and mines.

Bringing in ideas from analogous fields turns out to be a potential source of radical innovation. When you’re working on a problem and you pool insights from analogous areas, you’re likely to get significantly greater novelty in the proposed solutions, for two reasons: People versed in analogous fields can draw on different pools of knowledge, and they’re not mentally constrained by existing, “known” solutions to the problem in the target field. The greater the distance between the problem and the analogous field, the greater the novelty of the solutions.


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This is a finding that applies across a variety of contexts, and we’ve found that it has wide applicability in businesses.

To get a sense of the value of accessing and implementing knowledge from analogous fields, consider our recent studyin which we recruited hundreds of roofers, carpenters, and inline skaters to contribute their insights to the problem of workers’ reluctance to use safety gear because of discomfort. We won’t go into the details about how we found all these people — suffice it to say that we now know a lot about the roofing and carpentry trades and about inline-skating clubs and competitions.

We conducted standardized interviews with the participants, presenting the problem of lack of safety-gear compliance as it pertains to each of the fields (essentially we asked how roofers’ safety belts, carpenters’ respirator masks, and skaters’ knee pads could be redesigned to increase their comfort and use). We gave the participants a few minutes to suggest solutions, collected the responses, then had a panel of experts evaluate the suggestions on novelty and usefulness.

Each group was significantly better at thinking of novel solutions for the other fields than for its own.


There are some great examples in industry of creative solutions that arose out of analogous fields. More than a decade ago, 3M developed a breakthrough concept for preventing infections associated with surgery after getting input from atheatrical-makeup specialist who was knowledgeable about preventing facial skin infections. Other examples from our own industry experience include a company that needed a solution for tracking inventory and borrowed ideas from the sensors on miniature robot-soccer players, and an escalator company that borrowed a solution from the mining industry in figuring out how to install escalators in shopping malls.

We’re often asked by people in businesses how they can find appropriately analogous fields to tap for ideas and expertise. Admittedly, that can be difficult. First, we recommend that managers search not just for close analogies to the problem at hand but also go farther, to more-distant fields, as long as there remain similarities based on deep-structure analogies.

To identify distant analogous fields, first carve out the deep-structure elements of your problem before starting your search. Clear away the details and ask yourself: What is the essence of the problem? Then describe it in such a way that potential solvers from analogous markets can connect their knowledge to it.

Let’s say you’re seeking novel traffic-engineering solutions for a given city. If your description is too domain-specific, you might deter solvers from distant fields, so frame the problem broadly — for example, as a search for how to “coordinate a smooth flow of elements in a complex system.” That way you might be able to get medical doctors or circulatory-system researchers to contribute their knowledge.

Then consider applying search methods that have proven effective for identifying distant knowledge sources. Pyramidinginvolves sequentially asking people for referrals until you reach the top of a knowledge pyramid; broadcast search refers to widely disseminating a problem to activate self-selection among problem solvers.

Also, use your internal search team’s creativity to identify potential analogous fields and begin your pyramiding or broadcast search in these areas. It is more likely that pyramiding will lead you to far-distant analogous markets if you start your search outside your own field.

Next, we suggest that managers select analogous fields that are more “advanced” — that are marked by greater technological advancement or higher stakes, for example, than the target problem’s field. An example we mention in our roofers-carpenters-skaters paper: If a firm in the inline-skating market were looking for ideas for protective gear, it might do best to investigate reality-TV shows that feature extreme stunts, where the protection problem is dire, or safety gear for patients with brittle-bone disease. Then, within these analogous fields, companies should look for thinkers who display high levels of personal creativity, or those whose leading-edge needs drive them to solve similar problems in their own areas.

We also tell managers to bear in mind an important caveat from our research: We find that, on average, analogous-field solutions for all but the very best ideas show lower immediate usefulness. Presumably that’s because the problem solvers lack familiarity with the context of the target problem. To overcome this drawback, it can be a good idea to let analogous-field thinkers interact with problem solvers from the target market and gain familiarity with the target problem. It also helps to be clear about your innovation goals: Are you looking for radical solutions, or is the main emphasis on practicality? If the latter, consider using knowledge from analogous fields mainly as a starting point for further development of practical ideas.

In the past, when you’ve faced innovation problems yourself or managed teams that were trying to find novel solutions, you’ve probably considered consulting others who had greater expertise in those particular problems. If you looked elsewhere for ideas, you may have considered tapping people from your firm’s R&D, marketing, or design departments.

But next time, consider mining distant, analogous fields. Look for creative people who aren’t constrained by the assumed limitations and mental schemas of your own professional world. These are people who, although they know little of your field, may be more likely to come up with breakthrough thinking; indeed, they may be carrying around, in their heads, the germ of the solution you’ve been searching for all along.


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